What Was Henry Ford Nostalgic For?

In 1924, Henry Ford bought a patch of land in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford is often credited as a being far-seeing businessman, but in this case he was looking backward, not forward. On this corner of Dearborn, he started Greenfield Village, an homage to, in his words, the “saner and sweeter time” he remembered as a boy. For this village-as-museum, he collected old buildings along with the artifacts that would have been used in them: a carriage barn, a cider mill, a blacksmith’s shed. But the prize dwelling on the site, at least from Ford’s point of view, was his boyhood home. He had had it moved and re-fashioned to be exactly as it had been when he was thirteen. That was 1876, the year his mother died.

To realize this vision, to make this old house rise from the ashes, he had agents scour the countryside for all the items he recalled from youth: the rugs, the dinner plates, the silverware, the wood stove, the pump organ, and on and on. We all get nostalgic for our younger days, but Ford’s obsession is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, he had the money to pursue this nostalgia with an unmatchable intensity. Next, it turns out that he had never cared for farm life as a boy. He hated the work, dreamed of using automation to make it go away, and escaped from it as quickly as he could. Finally, and most significantly, he did more than anyone else on the planet to destroy the “simple” agrarian world of his youth and bring about the greasy, smoky mechanical age.

To sum up: at great expense, Henry Ford built a museum to commemorate a time he hadn’t liked, and which he subsequently bulldozed over a cliff.

This question fascinates me: What, exactly, was Henry Ford nostalgic for? Did he feel guilty? Did he experience dreams of something real that had been, or were they instead the lopsided projections of memory theater? I think of the “real” Greenfield Village as a girl he broke up with in high school. Imagine we track her down today. Life has been hard for her, and it shows. She says “Ha! So old Henry Ford says he loved me, huh? Well he sure had a funny way of showing it. He did everything he could to drive me away. And now he’s built this shrine to what? To me? To something that never existed. I don’t know who that is, but it isn’t me.”

What does nostalgia enable, and what does it block? Memory can be a wonderful celebration, but it can also be a loaded gun. It can carry an implied curse at the present, a maudlin memorialization of a golden past that never was, a rejection of the Now that was already immanent in the Then. Whenever you toast the past, be sure to tip your hat to the present.

(And by the way, I learned about Greenfield Village in Richard Snow’s excellent book I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford. I recommend it.)

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